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Marshall Islands considering repatriating first group from US

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MAJURO — The first group of Marshall Islanders from a location with widespread Covid-19 could be repatriated later this month, laying the groundwork for several hundred islanders stranded in the United States to return home.

Government officials confirmed Friday that planning is well underway with the aim of using United Airlines’ October 30 flight from Honolulu to Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands to repatriate a group of about 15 islanders, including the first lady who has been stuck in Hawaii since the borders were closed in early March.

To date, the Marshall Islands government has sponsored Air Marshall Islands charter flights to return several dozen Marshallese from Kosrae, Pohnpei and Kiribati — all coronavirus-free locations. These Marshallese citizens went through a two-week quarantine at a Majuro facility managed by the Ministry of Health, which is also used to repatriate Marshallese fishermen from domestic fishing vessels. In part because two fishermen have escaped from the quarantine facility and had to be apprehended by police, Majuro leaders have beseeched the national government to avoid bringing Marshallese from the U.S. and other Covid-19 nations for quarantine in Majuro.

Instead, the Marshall Islands has turned to the U.S. Army Garrison — Kwajalein Atoll or USAG-KA to handle repatriation of the first group aiming to return in late October.

Repatriation of U.S. Army base workers at Kwajalein Atoll has been ongoing since June, as the government and the Army agreed on a series of coronavirus prevention protocols — including multiple Covid-19 tests and extended quarantine periods. A handful of non-base workers have also returned through the Army-managed 21-day quarantine at Kwajalein.

Health Minister Bruce Bilimon confirmed that planning for this first group is currently in progress. The repatriation plan still requires the cabinet’s blessing.

The plan will require of the returnees a quarantine period in Honolulu and Covid-19 testing prior to departure from Honolulu, and then a three-week quarantine at USAG-KA. It is understood that this first group is expected to include a group of Marshallese referral patients who completed treatment in Hawaii hospitals along with their escorts, first lady Ginger Kabua, and a small number of others who have been stuck in Hawaii for months because of the border closure due to Covid-19.

Marshall Islands border protection against Covid-19 includes spraying by Environmental Protection Authority staff of pallets of mail and cargo on arrival at the Majuro airport. Marshall Islands EPA photo

If the plan moves ahead, the people who will be returning will pay for their own airfares, while the Marshall Islands government will be paying the costs for quarantine in Hawaii and at USAG-KA, according to an official at the chief secretary’s office.

In the meantime, the weekly repatriation this past week of Army base workers and a handful of non-based workers saw two passengers bumped from the weekly flight when they tested positive in Honolulu a day prior to departure to the Marshall Islands.

One intending returnee, a Marshallese mother and her infant baby, did not come with the group after they both tested positive while in quarantine in Hawaii, according to the Ministry of Health and Human Services, which tracks the number of people being repatriated through USAG-KA.

Through September 22, 217 people had been repatriated with 44 still in quarantine as of earlier this week. A total of 165 Army workers had been released following the 21-day quarantine and multiple Covid-19 tests that were negative. Eight non-USAG-KA workers — including U.S. and Australian diplomatic staff — have successfully completed the quarantine at the Army base and been released.

While the Marshall Islands is gearing to bring its first group home from the US, neighboring Federated States of Micronesia intends to use repatriation of FSM citizens stranded in the Marshall Islands as an exercise to prepare for returning Micronesians in coronavirus-infected countries.

To date, the Marshall Islands and FSM are two of only about a dozen countries globally not to have a confirmed case of coronavirus.

FSM President David Panuelo said the FSM’s first priority for repatriation is the estimated 40 Micronesians in the Marshall Islands that the FSM will use as an exercise to prepare for broader repatriation of its citizens in countries with Covid-19.

Panuelo described this as “the ultimate test in assessing the FSM’s capacity to implement repatriation from Covid-19 affected jurisdictions, such as the US Territory of Guam.” Panuelo said the FSM will treat the Marshall Islands as a Covid-19 affected jurisdiction for this repatriation exercise so the FSM test its repatriation protocols in an actual return scenario but without the actual threat of Covid-19  arriving.

No date has been announced for the repatriation but it is expected to coincide with the one or two flights per month that United Airlines is currently operating that link the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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